Film Reviews: Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood, and Citizenfour.

This Time, This Place
The Long-Awaited List
Birdman, dir. Alejandro Inarritu
The Grand Budapest Hotel, dir. Wes Anderson
Boyhood, dir. Richard Linklater
Citizenfour, dir. Laura Poitras
Film reviews by Manfred Wolf

Here’s my short list of the worst movies of last year. Birdman, directed by Alejandro Inarritu, is by the far the worst—pretentious, incoherent, always self-important, never persuasive, loud but strangely inaudible, episodic in the worst way possible, with no character doing anything revealing or even memorable. Supposedly about an actor seeking a comeback, it achieves dramatic action by someone yelling, or cursing, or breaking things < no one really speaks to anyone; they simply talk or scream past each other; sometimes sentimental things are intoned as if spoken to the wind, hackneyed cliches are reiterated with great pompousness (“You were never there for me”). A number of things give the film’s true lousiness away: whenever magic realism is brought in, watch out! It’s a sure sign the screenwriter has run out of ideas. Why not have a big bird, a la Gabriel Garcia Marquez, flying around the modern city? Wow: That Is So Cool. If the audience doesn’t get the symbolism, they’ll think it’s their fault.

I can think of two kinds of people who’d really love this film: people who think profundity can only be delivered in lurid, silly wrappings, and people who love to see a middle-aged man running around in underpants.

The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is so obviously the work of someone who has read a couple of books about Europe between the wars, Stefan Zweig, a bit of fiction, a bit of non-fiction, maybe a little Isherwood, and hell, he’s got it down. So he has no idea how people talked to each other at the time, which class rankings obtained and which had been overthrown by the first World War, what worried people and what didn’t, and in fact he hasn’t got much of an idea of anything other than the way some buildings might have looked and some of the clothes people wore. So the movie looks good, and Wes Anderson, the filmmaker, has a penchant for glossy still photographs anyway, so instead of delivering a film he delivers a whole set of postcards, one more lush than the next, but all adding up to absolutely nothing. This is the “poetic” style of moviemaking, which apparently delivers its creator from all sorts of naturalistic obligations.

I feel more hesitant about the third worst I’ve seen, because I walked out after an hour. Sure, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood took twelve years to film, but so what? Is that good? “Hamlet” was written in a few months. Is that bad? Do we see any profound development, any interesting changes, any contribution to our understanding of human behavior? I walked out because I was beginning to feel that it would take twelve years to watch that insufferably tedious little kid with the insufferably tedious parents. Meanwhile, the filming is lazy, and I had no reason to believe that anything of note would happen, that the adults would provide any emotionally fullness. (I will report that when I walked out, a woman in the row behind me glared at my cretinous behavior, on the order of “How could that old guy turn his back on something so glorious?”).

Some day I’ll be sure to see on Netflix what it is I might have missed, but I’m absolutely not holding my breath.

Finally, a documentary: Citizenfour by Laura Poitras takes an important, mysterious story, and tells it about as badly as possible. It manages to make Snowden even more inscrutable and wall-eyed than he appears on the news, and it reduces the story to a series of hotel rooms that the middle budget traveler might find himself in on a tiring trip abroad. Little silly interruptions are taken very seriously, and we are supposed to come away with something—though I defy you to tell me what you learned here that you couldn’t have from the SF Chronicle or on TV, say, on the The Newshour. One thing I rather liked, though the moviemaker did absolutely nothing with it: Snowden is the kind of guy who practically can’t talk without tapping on his computer. So for all I know Poitras tried to get something out of him but just couldn’t. Experienced though she is, her idea of a documentary seems to be just turning the camera on.

Those people who liked this movie simply like what Snowden has done, and confuse that with Poitras’ filmmaking.

Manfred Wolf promises not to accept any position as film critic.
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